Professor Margaret Mutu of Ngāti Kahu descent has been awarded the Pou Aronui Award by the Royal Society of New Zealand for her sustained contribution to indigenous rights and scholarship.
Prof Mutu said it came as a huge surprise to her.
"The field I work in is indigenous human rights, which have been violated badly not only in this country but in several countries around the world," she said.
"It's about the denial of rights, for example, my father not being able to speak his own language and the huge amounts of thefts of our lands, our resources and the refusal to recognise our sovereignty."
Prof Mutu credited her Scottish mother, who came to New Zealand at the end of World War II, for her career.
"When she married my Māori father she was deeply affected by the human rights abuses my father had to put up with and she was determined her children would not have to suffer that," she said.
"She gave us the energy and knowledge to be able to resist and she always said to us 'you will work to improve the situation of your people so they are not discriminated against and they are not treated wrongly', and my whole life's work has been that."
"My hope for the future is that Te Reo Māori will become a normal language for every person to speak.
"So we would be a truly bicultural or even a multicultural nation always remembering our roots are in the Māori world."
The award selection committee said Prof Mutu was esteemed nationally and internationally for her indigenous research and work on human rights over three decades.
She had tangibly enhanced their cultural and economic wellbeing through her work as a claimant, researcher, cultural expert, and negotiator for her own people, it said.
Prof Mutu is a Professor in Māori Studies at the University of Auckland and chairs two of her marae and Te Rūnanga-ā-iwi o Ngāti Kahu.